For this column I will look at four revues that have played or are still playing off-Broadway. I am not usually fond of revues, but I found each of these CDs enjoyable, though to varying degrees.
As Thousands Cheer (Varese Sarabande) originally opened on Broadway in 1933 with a score by Irving Berlin and book by Moss Hart. It is a revue presented as a living newspaper with the headlines brought to life. The sketches and songs present topical subjects of 1933. Because of the timeliness, it was ignored until the Drama Department got their hands on it and revived it quite successfully. One would think topics like two stars fighting over their divorce, lonely hearts columns, and two people living together before their wedding day (how shocking that must have been in 1933!) would be out of date today, but, as it turns out, they aren't.
The Drama Department wanted to present the show as it was originally done on Broadway all those years ago, but because the stage version of the film Easter Parade was supposed to open on Broadway that season, they were denied the use of the film's title song. They were offered the entire Berlin catalog from which to chose a replacement and chose "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee."
Since this revival was presented off-Broadway, the cast was scaled back to six members. A full orchestra couldn't be used, so new arrangements were written featuring just a piano and bass. It would have been nice if they had beefed up the arrangements for the recording, but the limited accompaniment remains. As a result of necessary cuts, the show became a brief 70 minute production.
Featuring a top-notch Broadway cast, As Thousands Cheer was delightful in the theater and is just as charming on CD. Judy Kuhn, Kevin Chamberlin, B. D. Wong, Howard McGillan, Mary Beth Peil and Paula Newsome give their all on this CD.
The score is chock full of Irving Berlin standards, some that I hadn't realized he had written. "Suppertime" sounds more like a Gershwin tune than one of Berlin's due to its bluesy sound. Originally sung by Ethel Waters in the 1933, in this production it is sung by Paula Newsome who does a great job of making the song her own. Mary Beth Peil gets to sing the show's one true standard, "Heat Wave." I wasn't thrilled with her version of the song in the theater, but I like it better here. Judy Kuhn performs the gem "Lonely Heart" that I first heard on Patti LuPone's Irving Berlin CD. It is a beauty of a song and deserves more recordings. Many of the other songs on this CD that are just as wonderful, some comic and some serious. This CD is certainly a "must have" for the avid show music collector.
Another topical revue is Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know (RCA Victor). Secrets is based on the book of the same title by Wendy Perrin, but is more of a smorgasbord of comic sketches, all about the things one should do before going, and things that can go wrong while one is on vacation.
Secrets is different from As Thousands Cheer in that it was written by many composers and lyricists instead of just one. Recorded nearly a year and a half into its run, this recording features the replacement cast rather than the original. This is truly an ensemble piece since each cast member does his or her best and no one performer seems better than the others. Because this CD was recorded so long into the run the one question you are wondering might be, "why the wait?" Well I am wondering the same thing. Though a bit long and repetitious in places, I enjoyed listening to the recording and I don't even travel.
Included in the shared "secrets" are sketches about talent contests on cruise ships ("Star Search"), lost luggage ("Naked in Pittsburgh"), and meeting up with an ex-wife on a cruise (a spoof on Noel Coward's Private Lives called, not surprisingly, "Private Wives"). There is also a running joke throughout the show about a man who is trying to book a flight by telephone on Miracle Airlines ("if it's a good flight, it's a Miracle") and must deal with automated responses instead of a real person. There is one song that should go on to become a cabaret staple, "What Did I Forget?", about what one might forget before leaving on a trip. Overall, Secrets is an interesting and entertaining recording.
Personals originally opened off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theater in 1985 and had a disappointing run. The score remained unrecorded until now. JAY records produced this new CD with the 1998 London cast. Personals is a revue about finding love in the personal ads.
Like Secrets, Personals features the work of a number of composers and lyricists. The book writers and lyricists, David Crane, Seth Friedman and Marta Kauffman, are most famous for creating the TV series "Friends." The CD gets off to a rousing start with the tune "Nothing to Do With Love" which has music by Stephen Schwartz and is one of the best selections on the disc. Schwartz also wrote "Moving in With Linda," another of the more memorable songs, about a man moving in with his girlfriend and bringing emotional baggage from past relationships with him. Also included is a song about a bisexual transvestite dwarf that some might find funny; I didn't.
Ria Jones gets the chance to shine the most with a ballad called "I Think You Should Know", a tune about dating for the first time after being divorced. Even a pre-Disney Alan Menken contributes some nice material with "I'd Rather Dance Alone". Seth Friedman provides four songs he wrote with Joel Philip Friedman (I guess to keep it in the family?). Rounding out the rest of the recording are four songs by William Deskin and two by Michael Skloff.
David Bardsley, Martin Callaghan, Marcus Allen Cooper, Christina Fry and Summer Rognlie, along with the previously mentioned Ria Jones, play a variety of characters and do just fine with the material. However, despite top-notch writers and a winning cast, I found this CD largely forgettable and undistinguished.
Little by Little opened in late January 1999 and ended its run in early March. The show begins with its cast of three (two women and one man) explaining that the story they are about to tell could belong to anyone. One thing I found strange was that the creators chose not to give the characters names. They are referred to as "Man," Woman 1," and "Woman 2." I found this "universal man, universal woman" approach distracting. The characters seem to become caricatures and I had difficulty relating to their plights.
The basic plot is boy gets together with wrong girl while other girl pines away for boy in silence. Brad Ross (music) has constructed a mini-opera of sorts. Billed as a new musical, there is no credit given to a book writer, just "story by Annette Jolles and Ellen Greenfield." The story seems to flow very nicely from song to song and one can get the gist of what is going on without having seen the show. The lyrics are billed, oddly enough, as lyrics by Ellen Greenfield on one line and lyrics by Hal Hackady on the next line, without either one being given credit to any specific song.
The small cast is lead by Darrin Baker as "Man" who, in one song, has the unhappy task of making his voice crack to appear as if he is an adolescent. I have never heard of Mr. Baker before but, with the exception of the cracking voice, he does an excellent job with the material.
It's nice to hear Christiane Noll, fresh from her starring role as Emma in Broadway's Jekyll and Hyde, in another musical. If you liked Miss Noll's voice on her solo CD and aren't too fond of the Jekyll score, this CD is for you. She plays "Woman 2" who loves "Man" from a distance.
Liz Larsen is developing a fine reputation as an off-Broadway actress; she recently appeared in A New Brain at Lincoln Center and can be heard on RCA's cast album of that show. I knew from the moment I saw her in her Broadway debut, Starmites, that this little lady would go far. She possesses the kind of thrilling belt voice that composers used to write for.
Despite its few flaws I enjoyed listening to this disc and still do. It features a delightfully tuneful score and many of its tunes stick in my head and float around for hours.
That's all for now. 'Til next time, happy listening!